Open data, if used and funded correctly, could improve understanding and outcomes for sexual assault and domestic violence survivors, according to experts.

“The role of data in enhancing our understanding of police response to domestic abuse and sexual assault really cannot be overstated,” said Carrie Bettinger-López, White House adviser on violence against women, who spoke Thursday on a panel about data and sexual assault hosted by the Center for Data Innovation.

Bettinger-López explained that this data can both improve policing practices and empower survivors when given access to their own case data.

Amanda Nguyen, president and founder of Rise, a sexual assault civil rights nonprofit, described her own struggle of having to keep reapplying to prevent her rape kit from being destroyed even before the statute of limitations on her case expired. The problem was not limited to her specific case or even her own state.

“People didn’t know that this was happening, and that goes to why data is so important,” Nguyen said.

She and other panelists speculated that there were a variety of reasons why law enforcement either did not have or did not use technological resources to report on sexual assault and domestic abuse data.

“There is some kind of a barrier,” said Alison Yeloushan, senior executive manager of Public Safety, Northeast, at Esri. “I think it’s resource driven, actually.”

“If we really, truly want better data, we need to put some money behind it,” agreed Cindy Southworth, executive vice president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence and founder of the Safety Net Technology Project.

Other panelists addressed the concern that many states and law enforcement offices had in increasing data reporting, as such reports often give citizens the false sense that sexual assaults are on the rise.

“People tend to think increased reporting equals increased prevalence,” said Southworth.

“Setting context is everything,” advised Matthew Polega, co-founder of Mark43. He said that providing situational context with the raw numbers usually explains why the reports have gone up. “We’ve seen the public is pretty responsive to that.”

Though all panelists were supportive of increased open data initiatives, they also cautioned that sexual assault and domestic violence data would have to be carefully managed in order to remove any information that could identify a victim.

“We need to make sure we don’t accidentally publish the name of a 12-year-old victim of sexual assault,” Southworth said, explaining that victims who see identifying information of other victims released publicly would be less likely to report themselves. “It has a chilling effect.”

Bettinger-López said that 52 percent of surveyed callers into the Domestic Abuse Hotline had not interacted with police and that, of the 48 percent that did interact with police, only one in seven would call the police in the future.

“It’s contextual,” Southworth said. For example, reporting the gender and age of a sexual assault survivor in a college town wouldn’t go very far in identifying them, as there are many who fit that description. On the other hand, reporting the name and age of a young survivor who lives in a neighborhood of predominantly retirees could be enough to identify them. Southworth recommended using Census data to determine whether certain data could act as an identifier.

“The train has left the station,” Bettinger-López said of open data in policing. “We need to make sure that domestic violence and sexual assault aren’t left behind.”

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Jessie Bur
Jessie Bur
Jessie Bur is a Staff Reporter for MeriTalk covering Cybersecurity, FedRAMP, GSA, Congress, Treasury, DOJ, NIST and Cloud Computing.